At this stage of the franchise, a reinvention was needed. Roger Moore had taken 007 into a tried and tested template of comedy action film. Fluff entertainment with incredible stunts and equally incredible storylines. For a new Bond, an arduous search had come to several dead ends, Pierce Brosnan and Sam Neill were both close to getting the part, but finally it landed at the reluctant feet of stage actor Timothy Dalton.
His take on the role was a significant departure from the Moore Bond. Returning to the books, Dalton intended his 007 to be an actual spy and assassin. A man used to living on the edge and perpetrating morally dubious acts for Queen and country. From the very beginning, with a training exercise that becomes an ambush, parachuting onto the Rock of Gibraltar, there's a new sense of danger and urgency. Dalton is far more visibly in the scenes than Moore had been and for the first time in a long time it felt as if James Bond and the man jumping out of airplanes and hanging onto the roofs of jeeps was actually one and the same person.
The world of Bond also feels like a real world as well. The Cold War is given more room here, although as ever it is some private entrepreneur and a maverick Soviet agent who are the real villains. There's an element of From Russia with Love, from the sniper scene to the love affair across the Iron Curtain. There's also the whole last act which takes place in Soviet occupied Afghanistan and features Art Malik as an Oxford educated Mujahadeen. The sympathy with the Taliban is a look that hasn't dated well. Rambo III will commit a similar allegiance. The scene in which Bond comes across the aftermath of an attack on a Soviet convoy, with the Afghan women stripping the dead soldiers is about as dark as 007 has ever gone, though the makers might not have intended it. Soviets soldiers would often be mutilated as a terror tactic.
The plot, which follows a faked defection, played with moist charm by Jeroen Krabbé, and an attack on an MI6 base, sees Bond deep in the nitty gritty of the Cold War. His refusal to shoot the girl sniper Kara (played by Maryam D'Abo) is seen as a flouting of orders and shows a distaste in his job that 007 has never evinced before. With Moore, you never got the feeling that Bond was actually an assassin. Not in the way you do with Connery and now Dalton. The relationship with Bond and Kara feels true, benefiting from the winnowing down of Bond girls to basically one. People die and when they do it occasionally has an emotional impact.
This anticipates the more serious direction Daniel Craig's more recent entries will take the series but one sign of unfortunate continuity comes with John Glen's direction. Glen had been an editor and second unit director before getting the nod to take over. He directed all the Bond films of the 1980s and for the most part stuck to a template that involved interlacing the action with comedy and reaction shots. Even here with a noticeable change in tone, he can't resist some monkeys in the Gibraltar sequence and a Parakeet returning from For Your Eyes Only. These remnants of Moore persist also in the Q scenes which belong to a familiar tradition that appears to be irrelevant to the plot, though at least now we have a new Moneypenny.
The supporting cast is top notch with John Rhys-Davies appearing as a Russian general and Joe Don Baker as the arms dealer behind the plot which involves weapons and heroin but how or why is unclear. John Terry - who would appear as Jack's father in the TV show Lost - gives us yet another version of that fickle Felix Leiter. If I had one criticism, it would be that the stunt scenes are impressive while not being exciting. As they dangle from the cargo net of an airplane above the Hindu Kush I began to notice the John Barry score playing underneath and wondering how long there was left. But Dalton makes for a refreshingly interesting Bond on the whole and The Living Daylights has risen in my estimation on this rewatch to be the best one since On her Majesty's Secret Service.